Shein has revealed plans to tackle its carbon footprint.
The Chinese e-tail juggernaut announced Thursday that it seeks to reduce its overall supply-chain emissions by 25 percent by 2030. It will use as a baseline its 2021 greenhouse-gas inventory, the carbon dioxide equivalent of 6.3 million tons, which it measured ahead of submitting its goals for validation by the Science Based Targets initiative.
In comparison, H&M Group generated 7.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2021 while Zara owner Inditex exceeded 17 million metric tons across its various subsidiaries.
TikTok’s buzziest brand said that it will whittle its Scope 1 and 2 emissions by increasing investments in energy-saving technologies, which it will complement by purchasing renewable energy certificates. Nearly all of Shein’s emissions—99 percent, to be precise—are Scope 3, meaning they stem from outside its owned or operated facilities. To address these, the fast-fashion purveyor will be working with experts to “collaborate on a transition” to renewable energy sources and carbon reduction schemes.
One of these collaborators is the Apparel Impact Institute (Aii), a spinoff of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition that helps manufacturers fund and scale energy-efficiency projects. Shein will be contributing $7.6 million, which Aii will use to implement programs at more than 500 of the Amazon dethroning app’s partner factories to generate a 10 percent greenhouse-gas emissions reduction per facility per year.
“Aii aims to reach as many suppliers as possible to decarbonize the fashion industry’s supply chain,” Aii president Lewis Perkins said. “We will be applying our proven programs and methodology to help Shein on its path towards bettering its supply chain.”
Shein, which is reportedly valued at $100 billion, or more than H&M and Zara combined, will also be rolling out a carbon-capture and renewable-energy transition strategy with Brookfield Renewable Partners, one of the world’s largest renewable power owners. To ease its reliance on airfreight, it plans to “transform” its operations by “focusing heavily” on nearshoring and onshoring. The Christian Siriano patron’s transition to recycled materials will likewise be sped up, it said.
“Today we’re taking a significant step forward, announcing a new set of 2030 goals that will help us accomplish emissions reduction targets for our entire supply chain over the next seven years,” said Adam Whinston, Shein’s global head of ESG. “Our partnerships with Brookfield and Aii further demonstrate our commitment to implementing long-term initiatives to empower suppliers and work to promote sustainable innovation focusing on reducing carbon emissions. This announcement further solidifies our commitment to sustainability and corporate responsibility initiatives at a company level.”
Michael Sadowski, a World Resources Institute consultant who worked with Aii on a roadmap to halve the fashion industry’s emissions by 2030, said that Shein’s reduction pledge is in line with the Science Based Targets initiative’s criteria, and that it’s “good to see it involved with Aii.”
“Reducing Scope 3 emissions by 25 percent on an absolute basis, given its growth, is a big challenge, and I’m glad to see its stated ambition,” he told Sourcing Journal. “Of course, we will have to see how it fares.”
Others are less sure.
“While It’s good to see Shein finally reporting its emissions and setting near-term absolute emissions reduction targets that cover its rapidly growing emissions in their supply chain footprint, the level of detail and ambition falls far short of the reductions needed,” said Gary Cook, global climate campaigns director at environmental advocacy group Stand.earth. “The company needs to be targetting much deeper emissions cuts to be on par with other major fast fashion brands like H&M, or to align with keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees [Celsius].”
Cook told Sourcing Journal that Shein’s push to increase its use of renewable energy is a “positive” one, but that its energy should be local and additional to the grid rather than dependent on renewable energy credits.
“It’s clear that Shein is feeling the public pressure to clean up its image, but without much greater transparency into how the company operates, where its emissions are buried and what steps it’s taking to reduce them it’s impossible for people to judge how effective these commitments are,” he added.
Also voicing doubts was George Harding-Rolls, campaign manager at the Changing Markets Foundation. The corporate watchdog group has challenged brands to cut their supply-chain emissions by at least 55 percent by 2030 in order to stay within the 1.5-degree trajectory. For him, Shein’s targets are simply not ambitious enough.
“Shein’s announcement is also vague about where its responsibility for emissions ends,” he told Sourcing Journal. “While the company includes scopes 1 through to 3 in its calculations and emissions reductions plans, its mentions nothing about the huge environmental impact and emissions from the end-of-life treatment of their clothing.”
When Shein launched a $50 million extender-producer-responsibility fund to find solutions for textile waste pollution in the global South over the summer, Harding-Rolls was among the skeptics. He saw the move as potentially greenwashing since the “Rock the Runway” organizer made no accompanying commitment to staunch its flow of what many have characterized as cheap, disposable, petrochemical-based clothing.
“Shein produced thousands of new lines a week and is the epitome of fast, throwaway fashion,” he said. “This overproduction of clothing has a significant impact on the climate given that 99 percent of clothing ends up landfilled, incinerated or burnt after use. Shein’s lofty emissions ambitions mean nothing if they do not address their fast-fashion business model: overproduction, poor quality and fleeting trends.”
Ayesha Barenblat, founder and CEO of fashion advocacy firm Remake, agreed. No amount of assessments and goal setting by Aii will have the same impact of reducing overall emissions than producing less, she said.
“We welcome any brand’s commitment on science-based targets to reduce overall and particularly scope three emissions but would like to better understand the substance beyond these claims,” she said. “For example, how does Shein plan to engage the Chinese government on these efforts, noting their product is predominately run on coal-fired plants in China? I would also love to understand what financial incentives will be given to Shein suppliers to decarbonize.”
Amid the naysayers, Frank Zambrelli, managing director at Accenture and executive director of the Responsible Business Coalition at Fordham University, has a different take. He said that some fast-fashion companies, including Shein, could teach the broader industry a few things.
“While there is no denying they are collectively producing a significant amount of product, many of these organizations, Shein included, have some unique processes in bringing product to market that are very waste conscious, significantly reduce disposition, and also advance circularity considerations,” Zambrelli said. “There’s collectively a long way to go, of course, but the increasing investments and commitments we’re starting to see are often part of longer-term strategies that have been in place in other parts of the value chain for several of these companies. Of course, there are bad actors, but there is also some precedent for more public recent activity.”
While it’s difficult to know a company’s intentions, Shein’s efforts to clean up its act appear to be one-part recognition of its impact as it matures as an organization, one-part “reality assessment” of the obligations the sector at large is beginning to face from various stakeholder pressures and cultural shifts, he said. Layer on the regulatory squeezes, including the European Union taxonomy for sustainable activities, the proposed U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission climate disclosure regulation and even involuntary frameworks like the International Sustainability Standards Board, the “road ahead is clear,” especially when investors are watching.
“This proverbial ESG train is leaving the station, so best to align and advance your processes to a position of more responsible, less negatively impactful business operations,” Zambrelli said.
Still, for Lynda Grose, a professor at California College of the Arts and a Remake board member, Shein and those like it need to be applying what she calls a “post-growth” strategy.
“The company states that Scope 3 emissions, which account for 99 percent of emissions in Shein’s entire supply chain will be reduced by 25 percent,” she said. “This means that 75 percent will not be reduced and in a growth business model over time that 75 percent grows exponentially faster than the reductions do.”
It’s imperative, Grose said, that its largesse and attention are applied to climate science-based strategies that result in a net drawdown, the only “measure of note.”
“We don’t have another 30 years to waste,” she said. “Shein and others can reframe the discussion, but none of this changes the science of growth in sales as the key hurdle.”